Normally I let comments be comments, but the post, “Paralegals in Film – One Point of View,” drew a comment from Chere Estrin of KNOW: A Magazine for Paralegals, Sue Magazine for Women in Litigation, The Estrin Report, and a bunch of other organizations, that merits a full post not only because of its length, but because of its content. Also it helps prove my original point which is that a course on the depiction of paralegals on the big and small screen would provide a good forum for discussion and education regarding paralegal practice, history, ethics, and professionalism. So here is her comment in full:
It’s very interesting the hot debate that the Erin Brockovich role has played over the years. I have heard more paralegals than not state how much they “hate” the role portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you choose to designate Ms. Brockovich as a “real” paralegal, it is very important that you understand the history and development of the position.
In the 70’s and ’80’s and far reaching into the 90’s, anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal. As the risk of revealing that I am definitely a member of the Boomer generation, I personally came up through the ranks starting in 1981. There were few paralegal schools at that time. Becoming a paralegal meant, for most, that you would receive training on the job. It is true that some paralegals came through the ranks of legal secretary but those were in the minority. During those times, let’s also understand that certain states, such as California, did not require someone to go to law school in order to take the bar. You were eligible if you worked under a mentor but law school was not required. That may still stand today, I’m not certain.
Paralegal schools were also rare in rural areas. This is one reason NALA was formed – to provide education. There was no Internet or online courses. Even in Los Angeles, a major metro city, there were two primary paralegal schools for a very long time – UCLA and UWLA. Some “match-book” cover type schools popped up, however, what was worse? Learning on the job or plunking good money down for a school that also taught you how to be a bartender?
In 1980, I started out as a paralegal in Seattle for $1500 a month. I did have some legal secretary training. I got my first job at a prestigious small firm. I was trained on the job like anyone else. The administrator hired me because, at that time, I was in the theatre. He happened to have seen one of my shows, so he hired me. True story. I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a large, prestigious entertainment firm that handled the A list. Working with movie stars was common.
In that role, I was very active becoming the firm’s first paralegal administrator. I recall that some of my assignments included meeting a cargo plane at LAX and working with customs to board the plane in search of fake ET dolls. (Really!) I was sent to the bottom of a famous L.A. hotel in search of evidence for a case. I waded through muck, spiders and ankle deep water in search of the “hot” documents. I went to Georgia to a carpet mill in search of evidence. In Seattle, paralegals were allowed to go before the judge on non-contested matters. The first judge I went before put our case over when it was apparent the other side was not showing up. Apparently, the defendant’s counsel had decided to go moose hunting. The judge thought that was a perfectly good excuse. Meanwhile, I was always taught by the best attorneys, took seminars, read books, and learned my job as it pertained to the firms in which I was working. And that’s the key element here – as it pertained to the firms in which the paralegal worked.
To put down those paralegals who literally blazed the trail for other paralegals while the education system for paralegals was in its infancy is a travesty. Passing a paralegal course does not ensure that the paralegal will be a good paralegal. Passing the bar does not mean the lawyer will be a good lawyer. It only means that they have studied should possess the core competencies.
It is interesting that years and years later, I make my living in continuing legal eduation. I am a very strong advocate and a firm believer that paralegals should not be paralegals without an education in paralegal studies. However, to discredit those who came up the hard way – with no schools available, training was on the job, they took it among themselves to develop good assignments, they trained the attorney how paralegals could be used, they started paralegal associations, they worked hard getting the word out about this new position, is to discredit your history. Remember, it took California 10 long hard years to get AB 6450 passed that now requires mandatory education for paralegals but still grandfathered in those without it.
As for Ms. Brockovich, not once in the movie was she referred to as a paralegal. Was she rough around the edges? You bet. Was that taking literary license in the movie? For those of us who haven’t met her, we don’t know. Was she then and is she now called a paralegal? No. Did she get a “percentage” of the settlement? Now, we really don’t know, do we? In California in the ’80’s and decadent ’90’s, paralegals at some firms were given large bonuses. (The firm I was with in 1986 was giving out $20,000 – $30,000 bonuses – and that was 1986 dollars.) Truthfully, none of us know except Ms. Brockovich and Mr. Massry what that bonus was based upon or how it was calculated. We only know rumors. If there was any impropriety, I am quite certain the State Bar of California would have stepped in.
Paralegals have made up a story about Brockovich, believed it and made it their truth. It’s not that this message is defending Erin Brockovich. It’s that those paralegals flouting their Masters and B.S.’s in Paralegal Studies claiming they are better than those without have no respect for the trailblazers that came before them. It’s disrespectful and has an arrogant tone to the thousands and thousands of paralegals who came before them. Things have changed but only very recently. Those paralegals without the schooling are the very same paralegals who pushed for better training and education for paralegals nationwide. The least we can do is honor them.
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